California Supreme Court Finds Duty in Take Home Exposure Cases

12-5On December 1, 2016, the California Supreme Court ruled that premises owners and employers owed a duty to prevent take-home asbestos exposure to those in an employee’s household. The court declined to carve out an exception to the general duty imposed by California statute (Civ. Code, § 1714) on every person to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. While the decision does not specifically cover take-home claims against product manufacturers, the rationale of the decision suggests that they too will be subject to take-home liability. Recognizing a duty to bystanders will expand the class of persons who may pursue employers and premises owners for asbestos exposure claims. The court found no inconsistency with its opinion and a number of other jurisdictions that have a “no duty” rule. One  distinguishing fact is that by the time exposure is alleged to have occurred in the 1970’s information and regulations regarding the dangers of take-home exposure would have been generally known to employers and premises owners, as the result of 1972 OSHA regulations and otherwise.

The court’s ruling came in two consolidated companion cases. In Kesner, plaintiff alleged he was exposed to asbestos when he spent an average of three nights per week at his uncle’s house in the 1970’s. His uncle, an employee of Pneumo Abex, LLC (“Abex”), worked in a plant where brake shoes were manufactured with asbestos fibers that were released during the manufacturing process, and it was alleged that the uncle brought the fibers home on his work clothes. Plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma and he sued Abex. The Kesner appellate court reversed Abex’ nonsuit based upon prior California holding (Campbell v. Ford Motor Co.) that the employer had no duty to a bystander. In the companion case Haver, the decedent’s heirs claimed decedent was exposed to asbestos by her former husband, who was allegedly exposed to asbestos from pipe insulation and other tools while employed as a fireman and hostler in the early 1970’s. Decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The Haver appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining defendant’s demurrer, relying upon Campbell and distinguishing Kesner on the ground that Kesner sounded in negligence whereas the Havers’ claims rested on a premises liability theory.

The Supreme Court held that in both instances, a reasonable employer should have known that asbestos presented risk of harm in the workplace and that it was foreseeable its employees would travel outside the workplace, particularly to their homes. “The relevant intervening conduct here – that workers returned home at the end of the day and, without adequate precautions, would bring asbestos dust home – is entirely foreseeable.” Thus, the exposure was foreseeable and duty attached.

The court did, however, limit the duty to “household” members, and not just anyone with whom a worker might come into contact (e.g. carpools, restaurant workers, or bus passengers). “We hold that an employer’s or property owner’s duty to prevent take-home exposure extends only to members of a worker’s household, i.e., persons who live with the worker and are thus foreseeably in close and sustained contact with the worker over a significant period of time.” The court stopped short of limiting the duty to “immediate family members” and instead applied it to “household members”, an acknowledgement of bonds which may be found in non-traditional and quasi-familial living arrangements. The court also explicitly acknowledged that “… a finding of duty is not a finding of liability. To obtain a judgment, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached its duty of ordinary care and that the breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury and the defendant may assert defenses and submit contrary evidence on each of these elements.”

No Duty to Prevent Take Home Exposure in Arizona

The Arizona Court of Appeals has held in a case of first impression that an employer has no duty of care to protect family members from asbestos taken home on an employee’s work clothes. Quiroz v. ALCOA Inc., et al., No. 1 CA–CV 15–0083 (9/20/2016).

Background Facts

laundryDr. Ernest V. Quiroz was allegedly exposed during his childhood to asbestos brought home on his father’s work clothes from the Reynolds Metals extrusion plant in Phoenix. Dr. Quiroz left the family home at age 14 to attend seminary high
school in Los Angeles. He gave up plans for the priesthood after meeting the girl he would marry, and instead attended college in Los Angeles and medical school in Michigan before entering practice in Grand Rapids in the 1980s. Dr. Quiroz was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2013, and died the following year at age 62. Dr. Quiroz testified in his deposition that he never entered the Reynolds Metals extrusion plant, and acknowledged that his only asbestos exposure related to Reynolds Metals would have been from his father’s work clothes. The trial court granted Reynolds Metals’ summary judgment motion based on the lack of duty under Arizona law to an employee’s family members. Plaintiffs timely appealed.

The Court’s Analysis

Dr. Quiroz was a very sympathetic claimant – potential priest, respected doctor, lay leader of his church, devoted husband and father with five children and six grandchildren – and absolutely no occupational or para-occupational exposure. His family and counsel, Waters Kraus & Paul, sought to use this case to extend liability for take-home exposure beyond the limited number of states that have recognized the claim. Acknowledging that there was no “special relationship” between Reynolds Metals and Dr. Quiroz, plaintiffs argued that premises owners such as Reynolds Metals had a duty to protect persons from hazards which foreseeably left their premises based on three main grounds: (1) Restatement (Third) of Torts §7 (imposing a general duty of reasonable care on all persons), (2) Restatement (Third) of Torts §54 (imposing a duty of care on possessors of land “for artificial conditions or conduct on the land that poses a risk of physical harm to persons or property not on the land”), and (3) “public policy.”

The Court of Appeals rejected each of plaintiffs’ arguments and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Consistent with the common law around the country, the existence of a duty of care is a pre-requisite for a negligence claim in Arizona. However, the Arizona Supreme Court has steadfastly rejected any consideration of foreseeability in determining the existence of a duty of care. The Quiroz court noted that Arizona had previously declined to adopt any general duty of care such as that in Restatement (Third) of Torts §§7 and 54, and it declined to do so here as well, explaining that doing so would:

substantially change Arizona’s longstanding conceptual approach to negligence law by effectively eliminating duty as one of the required elements of a negligence action. . . . The Third Restatement approach significantly lessens the role of the court as a legal arbiter of whether society should recognize the existence of a duty in particular categories of cases; for this reason, adopting the Third Restatement would increase the expense of litigation.

The court further declined plaintiffs’ invitation to either follow Restatement (Second) of Torts § 371 (imposing on a possessor of land liability for physical harm to others outside of the land caused by an activity thereon which he realizes or should realize will involve an unreasonable risk of physical harm) or to recognize a duty on the part of Reynolds Metals as a landowner to Dr. Quiroz, because those theories do – but Arizona does not – consider foreseeability in determining whether a duty of care exists.

Quiroz also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that public policy supported imposing a duty of care, in part because plaintiffs offered no statutory or common law basis for the public policy beyond the Restatement sections discussed (and rejected) above. The court also rebuffed Plaintiff’s argument that “any property owner could reasonably expect that a lack of due care in handling toxins on its premises, resulting in off-premises injury, could lead to liability,” which the court saw this as putting the cart before the horse: “A finding of a duty of care must come before considering whether Reynolds exercised due care.” The court further questioned where the dividing line would be if claims by person off-premises were permitted – would they be limited to family members with regular exposure, or could claims be brought by persons with more tangential alleged exposure, and would such an expansion result in unlimited or insurer-like liability? As Quiroz explained, other states around the country which, like Arizona, do not employ foreseeability in their duty analysis have all rejected claims based on take-home exposure for these and other reasons. Because there was no basis under Arizona law for any duty of care on the part of Reynolds Metals to Dr. Quiroz, no negligence claim could be stated and summary judgment was correctly granted.

Although the Arizona Supreme Court has repeatedly addressed the lack of any role of foreseeability in determining the existence of a duty under Arizona law, we anticipate that Plaintiffs will seek review of the Court of Appeals decision here.

Illinois Federal Court Holds Asbestos Product Manufacturer Owes no “Take Home” Duty of Care

The Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that under Illinois law, an asbestos product manufacturer owed no duty of care to household members in a “take home” or “secondary exposure” asbestos case. Neumann v. Borg-Warner Morse Tec LLC, No. 15-10507, N.D. Ill., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31280.

Plaintiff Doris Jane Neumann alleges that she contracted malignant mesothelioma through exposure to asbestos-containing products as a result of laundering the clothes of her son, who used asbestos-containing friction paper during his work as a mechanic. Originally filed in state court, the case was removed to federal court on diversity grounds. Subsequently, defendant MW Custom Papers moved for dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), alleging that it could not be found liable for negligence because it did not owe Doris Jane Neumann a duty of care under Illinois law.

In ruling on the motion, the federal district court noted with frustration that there was a split of opinion among Illinois appellate courts on the issue. The Illinois Supreme Court had the opportunity to decide the issue in Simpkins v. CSX Transp., Inc., 2012 Ill. LEXIS 330, 965 N.E.2d 1092 (2012), but declined to issue a definitive ruling. Thus, the Illinois Supreme Court never actually answered the question as to whether a “take home” duty of care existed in Illinois asbestos cases. As a result, the holding in Neumann takes on a heightened significance.

Neumann analyzed the following four factors set forth in Simpkins: (1) the reasonable foreseeability of the injury; (2) the likelihood of the injury; (3) the magnitude of the burden of guarding against the injury; and (4) the consequences of placing that burden upon the defendant. At the outset, the court determined that the foreseeability factor was sufficiently met under the liberal notice pleading standard used in federal court. Moreover, MW Custom Papers did not challenge the “likelihood of injury” factor. Importantly, the court emphasized that plaintiff completely failed to address the third and fourth policy-driven factors in her briefs and exclusively focused her arguments on the foreseeability factor, which “is not the only factor to be considered.” Although the court found “no precedents or other authorities that convince us how the Illinois Supreme Court would rule on this novel duty question,” it found two Illinois appellate decisions that addressed this issue, but came to opposite results. Lastly, the court looked toward outside jurisdictions for direction, where it once again found divided opinions throughout the country. “While the majority of courts have declined to extend a duty in this situation, that fact alone is not persuasive, particularly because duty and negligence principles vary among states.”

Neumann gleaned some guidance from the Seventh Circuit, which instructed that “[w]hen we are faced with two opposing and equally plausible interpretations of state law, we generally choose the narrower interpretation which restricts liability, rather than the more expansive interpretation which creates substantially more liability.” Applying this reasoning, the court adopted the more narrow view, finding that MW Custom Papers did not owe a duty to Neumann in light of the magnitude of the burden of protecting her and the potential ramifications of imposing that heavy a burden on MW Custom Papers.